The EU has lost the liberal plot


Picture of Ilana Bet-El
Ilana Bet-El

Historian, writer and political analyst

Ilana Bet-El is an historian, writer and political analyst

The ‘liberal international order’ has become one of those terms that is used reflexively.

Whether in support, derision or simply as a way of referring to the architecture of governance that came into being after the Second World War, the term is waning and losing its significance. Yet the truth is that most people, including politicians and those charged with leading the system, have little idea as to what it means: they are out of touch with the core understanding of what being a ‘liberal’ truly entails.

If there was a real and common understanding of the term ‘liberal’, it would not have been so easy for Viktor Orbán to use it in a manipulative way, to claim repeatedly that “a democracy is not necessarily liberal” and so coining his term ‘illiberalism’ – without any significant outcry from other European leaders. Neither would it have been possible for Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the governing PiS party in Poland, to justify his assault on the judicial system as a pushback against European liberal values.

The reality is that the European Union is at the heart of the matter. It has avowedly defined itself as a value-based community, enumerated as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights. And yet, rather than abide by them or debate them, these values have become the core of a most serious conceptual rupture within the EU.

Politicians are out of touch with the core understanding of what being a ‘liberal’ truly entails

For those who consider themselves supporters of its values, the EU is now deemed to be suffering a recoil from liberalism. Whether due to the longstanding dispute over rule of law in Poland; the fact that the European People’s Party (EPP) allow Fidesz, the party of Hungarian ‘illiberal’ ruler Viktor Orbán to remain part of it; or the openly xenophobic attitudes of a number of member states towards migrants, Muslims and Roma people, these examples demonstrate the EU’s lack in ability to keep to its consistently preached founding liberal values.

Meanwhile, opposition forces in various member states deem the EU to be too liberal, with its very principles threatening nation sovereignty and identity. The emphasis on minority rights is seen as a disinterest in majority issues, exemplified by the repeated attempts to find a common policy on migration. Notions of equality are read as enforced secularity, undermining Christian history and the role of the church.

The face-off over values is of a strategic nature since it poses a threat to the very meaning of the EU. Yet it is being played out as a series of tactical political battles for short term gain in member states and political groupings run by a professional class of politicians. For example, a government may fall, and then a coalition partner might tactically play the victim or claim the least responsibility in the hope of maintaining a majority of its voters.

Issues like these dominate the debate in the EU and its member states, with remarkably little vision or interest in substance, essentially damaging credibility of the European project. This means “the space for liberal debate has shrunk to the bare minimum”, as a senior EU official put it, leading to a permanent fixation with consensus. This is deemed to be true to EU Council conclusions as well as its national policies: they are consensus positions reached from a position of insecurity.

Politicians and technocrats confound democracy

The end result is that the EU, rather than being the global torch-bearer of promoting values, is increasingly being seen as weak and unprincipled. Politicians and technocrats confound democracy in the eyes of both those who support its principles and those who seek to undermine them. The very cause of the EU as a value-based community is at stake, but weak liberals fail to support it and the opposition is taking advantage of this through illiberal imposition.

The EU was not founded on common, shared and liberal values due to intellectual exercise, but rather due to the preceding absence of collective principles in Europe that allowed non-liberal and nationalist political systems to evolve, leading to devastating wars. Allowing European values to be eroded and disputed openly and repeatedly is therefore not only a violation of the very meaning of the EU, it may mean the end of the European project, and peace.

This article is drawn from a research project on “Liberalism in Europe Today”, commissioned by the Open Society Foundations in Europe, and based upon a selection of high level in-depth interviews conducted in Italy, Germany and Poland in the closing months of 2017.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo